Civil litigation isn’t only about seeking compensation for damages. It can also serve the purpose of preventing damage by using the power of more immediate protections such as temporary restraining orders and preliminary injunctions. These legal tools can help keep a precarious situation from getting worse. The case that follows illustrates just how important those protections can be.
A therapy dog’s purpose
Madeleine, a sophomore at The Ohio State University, required the assistance of Cory, an 8-year-old service dog, to help her deal with panic attacks severe enough to restrict her breathing and, at times, render her immobile. Madeleine trained Cory specifically to help her cope with panic attacks.
Because Madeleine needed Cory to be with her at all times, she filed the proper paperwork with the university to allow her to have a service dog accompany her on campus. She also sought—and received—approval for Cory to stay in the Chi Omega sorority house where she planned to live during the school year.
Complaints and an arbitrary decision
But another resident of the sorority house objected, complaining that the dog’s presence in the house triggered her allergies.
Unable to resolve the issue amongst themselves, the students sought a decision from the university. Unfortunately, the university arbitrarily ruled in favor of the other sorority sister because she signed her lease first.
This carelessly made decision did not reflect the guidelines established under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Madeleine’s affliction was a disability, and Cory’s presence was a medically accepted therapeutic aid—precisely the kind of aid the ADA was enacted to protect.
Living without Cory was not an option for Madeleine, neither was moving out of the sorority house. As a chapter vice president, she was required to reside in the sorority house to fulfill her duties. In addition, moving to campus housing would diminish the value of her college experience.
The university offered Madeleine no opportunity to appeal its decision and she was given a deadline by which to decide: leave with Cory or stay without him.
And decide she did—to pursue another course of action.
A clear case of disability discrimination
When Madeleine came to us, it was clear she had an urgent need to have her rights recognized and honored.
According to the guidance and regulations set forth by the ADA, an animal allergy does not provide a valid reason for barring a service animal like Cory from the premises. In addition, there was insufficient medical documentation to support the other student’s claims of an allergic reaction to the dog.
We approached the university about these discrepancies, but the ADA coordinator would not revisit the decision to compel Madeleine to remove the dog from the house. So we filed a lawsuit to protect Madeleine’s rights.
Time for a temporary restraining order
The biggest factor working against Madeleine’s case was time. A discrimination lawsuit would require months to resolve. By then, the school year would be completed and winning the case at that point wouldn’t do Madeleine much good.
We sought a temporary restraining order (TRO) to prohibit the university from removing Madeleine or the service dog from the house and disrupting her academic year. A TRO is essentially a “time out” that keeps everything in place for a short period of time. In this instance, it prevented the university from removing Madeline and Cory from the house. But a TRO is just what the name implies: temporary.
So, we also filed for a preliminary injunction to maintain the status quo of Madeleine’s situation until a final court decision could be rendered. It involved preparing the case—conducting discovery, reviewing appropriate case law, and interviewing potential witnesses. It was the only way to protect Madeleine’s rights and ensure that she received the college experience she deserved.
Justice through a preliminary injunction
The hearing for the preliminary injunction took a day and a half. Madeleine was there for the duration, with Cory in her lap. In the end, she was able to leave with good news: the preliminary injunction was granted, ensuring that she and Cory could remain in the sorority house until the trial was completed—and more importantly—until the rest of the school year was completed.
That injunction in itself was a “win” for Madeleine. There would be no trial, as the situation that had generated the need for a lawsuit would change with the close of the school year.
But there was a bigger issue that both Madeleine and our civil litigation attorneys recognized: the ADA exists to protect the rights of disabled citizens, but that protection is only as good as the commitment of those responsible for enforcing it. When that commitment gives way to expedience, the result can easily lead to disability discrimination. To its credit, the university came to recognize that.
As part of the settlement, the university agreed to allow Madeleine to participate in policy discussions regarding how the university would accommodate service animals for students in the future. Bringing the perspectives of students with disabilities into those discussions demonstrates a willingness on the part of the university to protect the spirit of the ADA and do what’s best for its students.
Everyone’s rights deserve to be observed and respected, and we’re willing to do what it takes to fight for that equality on behalf of our clients.
If you find yourself in a situation that involves disability discrimination, don’t hesitate to reach out to us. We’re here to help.
The outcome of any client’s case will depend on the particular legal and factual circumstances of the case.